By Ben McCarthy
The life of Kansas City fashion icon Nell Donnelly Reed finally arrives on the big screen this Friday. Nelly Don the Musical is the brainchild of local playwright Terrence O’Malley, who is also Reed’s great-great nephew. The film was produced exclusively around the Kansas City area last year, including scenes in Martin City, along 150 Highway. O’Malley used 13 different sites during the 2022 filming, and was able to wrap the shoot in October, a week before Halloween.
O’Malley, who practices law from his office in south Kansas City, was able to secure agreements with several local movie exhibitors to begin showing his first feature-length film this Friday, September 29. The film is scheduled to hit the big screen at multiple locations throughout town, including: AMC Theatres (in Olathe and Barry Woods in North Kansas City), Glenwood Arts Theatre, Screenland Armour, and Union Station. (For a complete listing of all showtimes, visit http://www.nellydon.com.)
Those theaters generally showcase movies with budgets that top $200 million. Nelly Don’s budget was only $200,000.
Not only did the production rely entirely on local talent for its cast and crew, all recordings for the music in the film were completed at Avila University in March of 2022.
The story’s focus is on a true local icon, albeit one that may not be widely known to audiences. Nelly Don, through her label, was responsible for designing, manufacturing, and selling 75 million dresses (even outfitting the military during WWII), and her personal life intersected with a great deal of Kansas City history in the early and mid-twentieth century. She had an affair with a well-known politician, had a secret child out of wedlock, and was even kidnapped. O’Malley turned the story into a musical, which played before packed houses at Musical Theatre Heritage in Crown Center in 2019.
Film casting took place in 2021, when the pandemic was in full swing. Rehearsals and musical recordings were all being done with masks.
Members of the cast and crew sat down with the Telegraph to discuss their experiences working on the production.
Mark Sepulveda, a classically trained singer, plays Johnny Lazia, an infamous local mobster. The one-time Los Angeles resident had his parents from Arizona join him for the premiere.. Sepulveda says he’s dreamed of acting in a musical since he was a young boy watching Dick Van Dyke sing and dance in Mary Poppins. He calls the opportunity to play the role of a gangster with a law school background the most fun he’s ever had working on a project.
“The character has very interesting and humble beginnings, just like Nelly Don,” Sepulveda said.
Julie Pope, a Chicago native, stepped into the shoes of the titular character. Pope embraced the enigmatic nature of the woman behind Nelly Don. Like her other colleagues on the film, she’s excited for people to see the musical translated onto the big screen.
“When you’re in theatre, people (in the audience) can be 6 feet or 100 yards away from you,” Pope said. “Film is more subtle, and I think this translated very well to the big screen.”
The cast shot the film out of sequence, and dealt with the reality of Covid illnesses hanging over every day of the production. Some roles even had to be recast the day of shooting with locals who had little to no acting experience stepping in at the last minute. Amy Hurrelbrink, who plays Tinker (a good friend of Nelly Don’s), was also the choreographer on the film and had to develop everything around the challenges of the pandemic, as well as bringing the spirit and energy of the stage production onto the big screen.
“I found choreographing to the screen, rather than the stage, actually more conducive to my style,” Hurrelbrink said. “There’s so many little things, like little looks of the eyes, that wouldn’t read on stage.”
Hurrelbrink, like much of the cast and crew, has lived in Kansas City her whole life, and yet had never heard the story of Nelly Don. She says it was a bit daunting to try and help bring the Nelly Don story (and by extension O’Malley’s family story) to the big screen, but is thrilled with what they’ve been able to capture.
“Normally, with theatre you do something and it’s gone, but with film you have something you can keep,” Hurrelbrink said. “I have kids, and I will be able to sit them down and share with them what I did.”